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Does Racism Exist?

On Tuesday, June 13 2017 we visited The University of Oslo.

Pictured below is an open area and statue on the campus.

plaza and statue in center of University

Prior to our visit, we had arranged to conduct interviews for our research projects. The interview that I arranged with my co-researcher Ian Constantinos was with Laura Führer, a PhD candidate in the Sociology and Human Geography Department at The University of Oslo. I chose to interview her because of the similarity in her academic interests and my research topic.

Laura and I discussing research

Laura Führer and I are discussing research.

Our overarching research question was: How does discrimination affect Norwegians and immigrants in Norway? While this may have been the question that we were aiming to answer, research is always an iterative process. Through the topics that were discussed in our interview, and the new information that we gained, our research question changed slightly.

The most interesting thing that I learned from the interview, and what has changed the focus of my research, is the idea that there is not a vocabulary within Europe to speak about race and discrimination. Laura Führer described it in this way: “We don’t have a societally accepted terminology . . .  of racial things.” Hearing this was almost confusing to me and she went on to explain it more to us.

“In Europe, the mention of the term ‘race’ brings back memories of The Second World War. The fact that a racial ideology was used then to justify genocide has caused European society to shy away from any racial terminology in the aftermath. The dominant idea is that there are no races, there is only one human race, and saying anything to the contrary can be interpreted as ‘racist’ in and of itself. While that may sound like a neat idea initially, it also means that there is a lack of vocabulary to discuss ‘race’ as a social construct and that is very problematic.”

This was mostly new information to me. I have understood that race is a social construct and that biological race does not exist. This means that everyone is a part of humanity, and the word race implies a social hierarchy that was created in the past by people who believed to be superior. So because race is a word that refers to this non-existent hierarchy based on the skin color of a person, race itself does not exist as a biological marker. However, in America race is talked about so much that is hard to put this into practice. In Norway it is the complete opposite; the absence of the use of race and racism hinders action against discrimination.

The informant went on to describe that in terms of discrimination: “There is disagreement on whether the phenomenon exists, because race doesn’t exist from European point of view.” So the argument is that if race does not exist then racism gets defined in limited terms and is seen as limited to extremist groups such as neo-nazi groups. This is where there is a problem, because racism and discrimination are taking place everyday. “Non-white people are being discriminated against in Norway, but we just don’t have a way to talk about it . . . and it’s not going to go away if we refuse to acknowledge it.”

After this discussion I asked the informant if she had witnessed any discriminatory actions and if she would be willing to tell us what happened. Laura Führer described a time in a school setting where one student had referred to another using the “n word” and the student that had been the recipient of this word left the room. The first student then went on to defend the use of the word, and the authority figure in the room did not say that the word should not have been used. The informant went to the Department Head to relay what had happened, and it was made clear to the informant that not much would be done to address this behavior. The informant  explained that if it had been an issue of gender equality the matter would have been taken very seriously.

Since racism is not acknowledged as a phenomenon, I’m sure that it could be very difficult to handle a matter such as this. On the other hand, I think that it makes it that much more important to address instances such as this. If no one says that racial discriminatory behavior is happening, then it will continue to get worse, especially if there are no repercussions.

The intentions behind taking biological race out of accepted vocabulary are good, but is important to learn from what is happening in Europe in terms of racism right now. I think that this is the correct way of thinking about race, but that there needs to be a vocabulary in which discrimination against races can be addressed.